World Brain

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First edition (publ. Methuen)

World Brain is a collection of essays and addresses by the English science fiction pioneer, social reformer, evolutionary biologist and historian H. G. Wells, dating from the period of 1936–38. Throughout the book, Wells describes his vision of the World Brain: a new, free, synthetic, authoritative, permanent "World Encyclopaedia" that could help world citizens make the best use of universal information resources and make the best contribution to world peace.

Development of the idea[edit]

World Encyclopedia[edit]

In the wake of the first World War, Wells believed that people needed to become more educated and conversent with events and knowledge that surrounded them. In order to do this he offered the idea of the knowledge system of the World Brain that all humans could have access to.[1]:564 The Wellsian dream of a World Brain was first expressed in a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Weekly Evening Meeting, Friday, 20 November 1936. He began with his motivation:

My particular line of country has always been generalization of synthesis. I dislike isolated events and disconnected details. I really hate statements, views, prejudices and beliefs that jump at you suddenly out of mid-air. I like my world as coherent and consistent as possible. So far at any rate my temperament is that of a scientific man. And that is why I have spent a few score thousand hours of my particular allotment of vitality in making outlines of history, short histories of the world, general accounts of the science of life, attempts to bring economic, financial and social life into one conspectus and even, still more desperate, struggles to estimate the possible consequences of this or that set of operating causes upon the future of mankind. All these attempts had profound and conspicuous faults and weaknesses; even my friends are apt to mention them with an apologetic smile; presumptuous and preposterous they were, I admit, but I look back upon them, completely unabashed. Somebody had to break the ice. Somebody had to try out such summaries on the general mind. My reply to the superior critic has always been ... "Damn you, do it better." (pp. 3–4)

He wished the world to be such a whole "as coherent and consistent as possible". He wished that wise world citizens would ensure world peace. He was a communalist and contextualist and ended his lecture as follows:

[W]hat I am saying ... is this, that without a World Encyclopaedia to hold men's minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles. (pp. 34–5)

The Brain Organization of the Modern World[edit]

(Lecture delivered in America, October and November 1937)

This lecture lays out Wells's vision for "a sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared".[2]:49 Wells thought that technological advances such as microfilm could be used towards this end so that "any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica".[2]:54

A Permanent World Encyclopedia[edit]

(Contribution to the new Encyclopédie Française, August 1937)

In this essay, Wells explains how then-current encyclopaedias failed to adapt to both the growing increase in recorded knowledge and the expansion of people requiring information that was accurate and readily accessible. He asserted that these 19th-century encyclopaedias continued to follow the 18th-century pattern, organisation and scale. "Our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development," he argued, "rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane."[2]:58

Wells saw the potential for world-altering impacts this technology could bring. He felt that the creation of the encyclopaedia could bring about the peaceful days of the past, "with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose, and of a commonwealth such as now we hardly dream of".[3]

Wells anticipated the effect and contribution that his World Brain would have on the university system as well. He wanted to see universities contributing to it, helping it grow, and feeding its search for holistic information. "Every university and research institution should be feeding it" (p. 14). "It would become the logical nucleus of the world's research universities and post-graduate studies" (Wells, 1931a, p. 796). He suggested that the organization he was proposing "would outgrow in scale and influence alike any single university that exists, and it would inevitably take the place of the loose-knit university system of the world in the concentration of research and thought and the direction of the general education of mankind" (Wells, 1938, p. 95). In fact the new encyclopedism he was advocating was "the only possible method I can imagine, of bringing the universities and research institutions around the world into effective cooperation and creating an intellectual authority sufficient to control and direct collective life" (Wells 1938, p. 48). Ultimately the World Encyclopaedia would be "a permanent institution, a mighty super-university, holding together, utilizing and dominating all of the teaching and research organizations at present in existence" (Wells, 1942a, p. 59).[4][5][6][1]:561

Influence of Wells's World Brain idea[edit]

1930s: World Congress of Universal Documentation[edit]

One of the stated goals of this Congress, held in Paris, France, in 1937, was to discuss ideas and methods for implementing Wells's ideas of the World Brain. Wells himself gave a lecture at the Congress.[7]

Reginald Arthur Smith extended Wells's ideas in the book A Living Encyclopædia: A Contribution to Mr. Wells's New Encyclopædism (London: Andrew Dakers Ltd., 1941).

1960s: The World Brain as a Supercomputer[edit]

From World Library to World Brain[edit]

In his 1962 book Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that the construction of what H. G. Wells called the World Brain would take place in two stages. He identified the first stage as the construction of the World Library, which is basically Wells's concept of a universal encyclopaedia accessible to everyone from their home on computer terminals. He predicted this phase would be established (at least in the developed countries) by the year 2000. The second stage, the World Brain, would be a superintelligent artificially intelligent supercomputer that humans would be able to mutually interact with to solve various world problems. The "World Library" would be incorporated into the "World Brain" as a subsection of it. He suggested that this supercomputer should be installed in the former war rooms of the United States and the Soviet Union once the superpowers had matured enough to agree to co-operate rather than conflict with each other. Clarke predicted the construction of the "World Brain" would be completed by the year 2100.[8][need quotation to verify]

1990s: World Wide Web of documents[edit]

World Wide Web as a World Brain[edit]

Main article: World Wide Web

Brian R. Gaines in his 1996 paper "Convergence to the Information Highway" saw the World Wide Web as an extension of the "World Brain" that individuals can access using personal computers.[9] Francis Heylighen, Joel de Rosnay and Ben Goertzel envisaged the further development of the World Wide Web into a Global brain, i.e. an intelligent network of people and computers at the planetary level. The difference between "global brain" and "world brain" is that the latter, as envisaged by Wells, is centrally controlled,[1] while the former is fully decentralised and self-organizing.

Wikipedia as a World Brain[edit]

There are a few similarities that link Wells' World Brain as a precursor to Wikipedia. Two to mention are the noncommercial aspect of both Wikipedia and the World Brain, as well as its international aspect. Wells did not want the Brain to be commercially funded, just as Jimmy Wales has decided not to have ads on Wikipedia, ensuring both were free from commercial bias. In addition, Wells envisioned microfilm as a universal format for which people could share information through the World Brain. His intention of using microfilm as the form for the World Brain mimics the use of the internet because he contended that the use of microfilm would abolish the distance between information and knowledge.[1]:564

A number of commentators have suggested that Wikipedia represents the World Brain as described by Wells.[10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Rayward, W. B. (1999) "H. G. Wells's idea of a World Brain: A critical reassessment", Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50(7): 557–573
  2. ^ a b c Wells, H.G. (1938). World Brain. Methuen & Co. 
  3. ^ "The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia". Contribution by H. G. Wells to the new Encyclopédie Française, August 1937
  4. ^ Wells, H.G. (1931a) The work, wealth and happiness of mankind, New York: Greenwood.
  5. ^ Wells, H.G. (1938) World Brain, London: Methuen
  6. ^ Wells, H.G. (1942a) Science and the world mind, London: New Europe Publishing Co.
  7. ^ "Documentation Congress Step toward Making 'World Brain'". The Science News-Letter. 32 (861): 228–9. 9 October 1937. doi:10.2307/3913334. JSTOR 3913334. 
  8. ^ Clarke, Arthur C. Profiles of the Future; an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. New York: Harper & Row, 1962
  9. ^ Gaines, Brian R. (1996). "Convergence to the Information Highway". Proceedings of the WebNet Conference. San Francisco. Retrieved 7 November 2009. 
  10. ^ Joseph Stromberg, In 1937, H.G. Wells predicted Wikipedia. But he thought it'd lead to world peace,, February 23, 2015.
  11. ^ Joseph Michael Reagle (2010). Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, page 24.